Monthly Archives: June 2015

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Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation (part one)

This ad-hoc assembly engages different experiences of political organising and civil resistance against ruling regimes.

The call for this assembly is inspired by the mass protests in Macedonia that kicked off May 5, 2015. That day people rallied for justice and against police brutality. Protests persisted on each consecutive day and grew with demands for resignation of the entire government and criminal charges, building on a years of public outcry over the unjust and discriminating policies and actions by the Macedonian government. Citizens-activists and different organisations had already opened fronts of struggle demanding greater control by the people over institutions that politicians use to make decisions on their behalf. For years now, protests had been held against police brutality, urbanisation, pollution, in defense of students rights and for access to quality public education, demanding equality before public institutions, in the name of social justice and workers’ rights, against homophobia and heteronormative laws and for media freedom.

The contributions to this assembly engage experiences from different spaces to address questions about the growth of civil resistance, the cohesion and modes of representation (who speaks, on whose behalf and towards what were actions directed). In this way we hope to bring to light visions about the distribution of political power, frames of knowledge and actions. To do that, we ask for experiences about people’s struggle against ruling regimes across borders, and in Macedonia. We ask, what was civil resistance directed against and how did it build up, as it was in the making?

The first part of this assembly presents four international perspectives:

 

Assembly editors: Mila Shopova, Elena B. Stavrevska, and Anastas Vangeli

Photo: Vancho Dzambaski

Of struggles, protests and plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Authors: Zoran Vučkovac and Emin Eminagić

Blazing images of Bosnia and Herzegovina sent into the world from the February 2014 protests were only the tip of the iceberg that has been paralysing the country ever since the war. Protesters took to the streets and set the government buildings ablaze in a symbolic act that points to the gist of its numerous problems. The country’s institutions largely became a partycratic oligarchy backed by the Dayton Peace Accords, actively maintaining and reproducing ethnic divisions for twenty years now. Arising from the fire, plenums or public assemblies emerged not only from the need for more active citizenship and direct democracy, but also as an outcry to stop with the blatant robbery of public and natural resources through clientelism and criminal privatisations. At one point there were exclamations of fearless speech among the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in an attempt to reclaim a political language they have been denied since the end of the war. For the first time after the war, in the media one could hear expressions like solidarity, social justice, and equality, instead of the usual ethno-nationalist identitarian rhetoric present in the public discourse in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[1]

The demands formulated during the protests and plenums did not arise from nothing; they come from a long line of exercising public dissent and calls for more solidarity. Protests and plenums were preceded by several events in which Bosnians and Herzegovinians transcended ethnic divisions in their struggle for the commons. Those are the Tuzla student plenum in 2009, the protests of Tuzla’s workers for the past 10 years, Banja Luka “Picin Park” protests in 2012 and Sarajevo “Babylution” the year after.

In the case of Picin Park, citizens clearly stated that the struggle for the park is a “metaphor for the communality that opens up spaces for communication and action” against the use of “force and control in everyday life, overbearing politicians, but for a just society.” The protest received support from both sides of entity lines, sidelining ethno-national issues to the unified cause – struggle for public space. Babylution or the JMBG protests came along a year later and again pointed out to the lack of a functional state, and the dehumanisation of citizens through ethno-national matrix. [2]

On the Tuzla protests and representation

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina is full of examples of solidarity in action, it becomes evident that every new protest has their ground zero. Little has been done to preserve the legacies of former struggles, and even less to create a platform for sharing experiences and capacities among the local activists. Protesters and activists are easily isolated and criminalised without proper legal or media support. Bosnia is lacking in physically liberated spaces as both the left and the NGO scene function guerilla-style, with no clear vision of change and reform, or systemic approach to the completely dysfunctional state. Case in point is the new Compact for Growth and Jobs, an EU package of reform measures for Bosnia, initiated by the British-German initiative. Pushing for economic instead of political reforms and allegedly addressing the people’s needs, the Compact literally hijacks Bosnian protests of 2014 in order to push for more austerity and labour market reforms, whilst offering more of the same neoliberal policies that have been at work since the end of the war. At the same time, the Republika Srpska entity is fast-tracking a number of laws about public space, and the right to protest that significantly reduce the window for voicing consent. Even though there are signs of allegiances made across entity borders and actions that surpass identitarian politics Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to preserve its memories of workers, anti-fascist and anti-nationalist struggles as well as urban (all of them very political of course) struggles. On top of this, there is a need for more regionally coordinated action so similar groups will not repeat the same mistakes.

[1] Arsenijevic, Damir (ed.) Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina – The Fight for the Commons, Nomos, 2014.

[2] Because of the lack of political consent on personal identity number (JMBG), newborns were unable to apply for passports and travel abroad. Berina Hamidovic, three months old baby died because she was unable to receive proper medical treatment abroad.

(Euro)Maidan is over, the Revolution of Dignity goes on

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Olga Zelinska

In the winter of 2013/2014, Ukraine got into the headlines of international news. (Euro)Maidan was the second, after the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’, all-national contention in the country’s short history. In both cases people were driven to the streets by the sense of growing injustice (disrespect of the authorities, ignorance to people’s needs and flourishing corruption), accompanied by a deepened socio-economic crisis.

Before the actual events, sociologists revealed high and stable levels of dissatisfaction and readiness to protest. These were ignored by Yanukovych. Earlier attempts of protests (against taxes, language policy, police cover-ups and judicial corruption) had no chances of expanding under his repressive regime. In the spring of 2013, the opposition failed in getting sufficient support for the ‘Raise Ukraine’ campaign. So, when people actually took to the streets of Kyiv, it came as a surprise to the government, the opposition, and the analysts.

The postponement of a EU-Ukraine deal was the trigger for the first ‘civic’ Maidan on the Independence Square, which brought together civic activists, students, and ordinary Kyivites. The reaction of the opposition was quick – it could not ignore such a promising element of a pre-electoral PR. Few days later, a ‘political’ Maidan emerged just 300 meters down the street, on European Square. For a week, the leaders of both Maidans discussed plans for joining the efforts. In the end, it was the brutal beating of the students which brought them together, as well as thousands of others, arriving from numerous protesting cities of both the East and the West.

As the regime hardened its grip with police attacks and legal repressions, protesters persistently arrived to Kyiv, took shifts, build barricades and learned self-defence. Surveys show that 70% of Kyiv Maidan participants came there on their own, 12% through NGOs, and only 12 to 13% (in different periods) through a political party. They were, thus, not inclined to obey any institution and, at the same time, bore the responsibility for own actions.

The opposition had to ask Maidan for a ‘mandate’ to negotiate with the authorities. This was no easy job. 83% of the protesters were determined to stay on Maidan until all the demands were met. The claims were quite extensive, especially after the police opened fire on the demonstrators, and included the resignation of the President, the Parliament, the Government and a major ‘power reload’ through snap elections. Considering the authorities were ready for minor concessions only, the negotiators faced a ‘mission impossible’. So it happened.

After the opposition-presented ‘round table’ results were booed by the crowd, the leader of one of the Maidan units got on stage and announced an ultimatum to the President – ‘resign by tomorrow, 10 a.m’. Yanukovych did not need to be asked twice – he fled the country the same night.

It was no ‘happy end’, however. The Maidan is over, but the Revolution of Dignity goes on. The country went through presidential and parliamentary elections, and there have been struggles with the Crimea annexation and a sore conflict with Russia in the East. Reforms are going slowly, expectations border disillusionment. If the underlying reasons of protest keep being ignored, Maidan-3, the experts say, is possible.

Modes of resistance and Tahrir Square

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Dina Fergani

Tahrir Square has a special place in contemporary political psyche. It became a dream icon for urban resistance throughout the world, and was also a place to examine the possible modes of resistance for the Egyptian people.

At the early phases of the Egyptian revolution, Tahrir square functioned as a unifying tool, making it a utopic blueprint where all political plans were charted. During that period it was relatively easy to organise various political factions and individuals, on one common cause, that of ousting Mubarak and the representations of his police state. Around such demands converged Islamists, Marxists, Nationalists, Liberals and everything in between, in addition to thinkers, workers, students, clerics and others. Tahrir Square, thus, converged a myriad of people and relations that were actively kept separate outside of it by the hegemonic forces of both capitalism and the state. However, as the revolution progressed the space became layered with certain contradictions.

As the events of the Egyptian revolution unfolded, the one-time square friends became foes, in a classical dialectic of power struggle. The temporal alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and several revolutionary forces crumbled down as the brotherhood ascended to power and excluded those very factions that supported them in the elections. In return revolutionary forces had a strong presence in the June 30 protests that led to Sisi’s ascension to power. Also, several reports were revealed of violence directed towards females at the midst of revolutionary liberation and celebrations. These incidents do not in any way distill the potency of the square as a tool of resistance, but rather shed light on the complexity of urban resistance.

Tahrir square operated as an alternative city and was divided into three main areas: a battlefield, a buffer space and areas of social services (field hospitals, art corners, communal schools for street kids). People did not converge in these spaces in an egalitarian manner. Factors of class and gender were decisive in the distribution of people and power. The battlefield was at the outskirts of the square, where protestors clashed with either the police or army over controlling territory. This area was the backbone of Tahrir, since no sit-in would have been possible without actively fighting for the right of space. This space was the most violent and predominantly (but not exclusively) occupied by young working and middle class men. A gender divide was also visible around this area, as women were continuously discouraged from approaching the front lines. Women, however, congregated in large numbers on the outskirts applying medications, to mitigate the effect of tear gas, or bandages, on rubber bullet injuries. The second area of the square was the buffer space between the areas of clashing and the rest of the city. This area was the entrance point to the square, and was saturated by various citizen-run checkpoints. This zone acted as the visible representation of the political will of the people present, and was the most socially diverse. The last area was that of the field hospitals run by volunteer doctors and pharmacists. The health practitioners occupied street corners, but more often than not they occupied nearby mosques and churches since their enclosed architecture deemed them safer. It is interesting that these religious institutions also provided these services in the outer city, especially with the decay of state-run services. The square was thus a citizen-run city, with a rigid structure corresponding to familiar forms of organising space found in several urban spaces. Citizens became the providers of services, not in the individualistic neoliberal sense where access is only granted to consumers who can accumulate capital, but rather as a collective.

Thinking about the potency of the collective organising, it is useful to mention Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, who theorised the concept of hegemony and saw the constraints for political action in capitalist rule: an act of resistance within it will always recreate its power relations rather than change them. Gramsci alludes to two contradictory consciousnesses. One is formed by the collective in organising and transforming the world. The other is based upon uncritical absorption of old social relations. The dialectic between the two, creates political action leading to change. It can be said that Tahrir square provided the medium for this dialectic as the protestors experienced both consciousnesses. This dialectic made the square a blueprint for social progression. The square became a place of alteration of consciousness, and a place of examining the possible modes of resistance, which was the first step in a prolonged series of resistances.

 

Works cited:

  • Gramsci, Antonio, Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

 

Resistance in Thailand a year after the 2014 coup

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Rangsiman Rome

Any writing about the state and forms of political organising and civil resistance in Thailand today is indelible from the conditions lived since the military coup from 22 May 2014. Yet, to understand Thailand’s latest coup detat, I share a few words about the present-day context, specifically some of the consequence of the former coup on 19 September 2006.

The 2006 coup was to eliminate then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of the Thai Rak Thai Party. His policies, e.g. the “30 baht health care program” and “village fund,” made him highly popular among people from the impoverished North and Northeast region. Yet he was not favored by the upper middle class, mostly from the capital, as well as Thai elites, who are related to a higher political institution (which I cannot mention). These people strongly believe that Thaksin is anti-monarchy, a single claim, sufficient however, for many Thai people to hate someone. Democrat Party’s supporters also buy into this claim about Thaksin. They have used time and again the same accusation against opponents. Following the 2006 coup, the Red Shirts emerged — an anti-coup, pro-democracy civil movement supporting, and supported by, Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party.

Even after a major election victory of Pheu Thai Party in 2007 (then People’s Power party, the revival of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai), the conflict and political division between Royalists and pro-democracy remained. Over the years the Red Shirts held protests, as did the opposition civil movements, the Yellow shirt (supporting and also supported by elites and the higher political institution). Discord grew deeper as Democrat Party took over the Premier’s seat without elections. In 2010, over 70 civilians were killed in a violent army crackdown on a months-long Red Shirt sit-in in Bangkok’s financial and shopping district. No government official has yet been held accountable for the deaths, although Pheu Thai Party won an election victory in 2011.

The coup d’etat on 22 May 2014, with support from Thai elites, was one more attempt to wipe out the Red Shirts, Shinawatra’s supporters, and other pro-democracy citizen groups which are not affiliated with political parties. Yet, after the 2014 coup there was no sign of opposition neither from the Red Shirts nor from Shinawatra’s party. Both seemed to submit to the overthrown power. The anti-coup movement that has appeared since, is primarily organised by student activists and other citizens’s groups. For example, League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) is a student activist group that questions the current political structure and fights against abuse of office by the government, opposes the coup detat and unjust laws. This and other movements are smaller in capacity when compared to the massive Red Shirts, but they are truly independent from political parties. Any affiliation of a movement to an existing political party can serve as grounds for attack regardless of the intention of the movement. Political parties may also refuse to stand for their supporters. For example, many Red Shirt members were blamed and charged with severe accusation just because they defended Pheu Thai Party in this period, yet the party did nothing to protect them.

Protest against the 2014 coup started the day after. Already on 23 May, students from many universities and citizen activists came to the streets to join the resistance. For around three weeks, the anti-coup movement was intense and widely supported by the people. The number of protesters had reached thousands at its peak.

Social media has been the major factor in the current anti-coup movement. In the first two weeks after the coup, this proved to be a successful method. Students and activists could reach out to many to join the resistance. Publicising, however, through social media inadvertently led the Junta to the appointed destination, cracking down on protesters, sometimes even by force. Leaders of the anti-coup groups were summoned to report to the Junta, arrested, or threatened, and resistance has since been much harder to organise. Some members from different groups continue to be regularly visited in their homes by military personal for disciplining conversations. Others are prosecuted for defying the junta orders, an act often interpreted by the ad-hoc junta-led tribunals as violation of lèse majestè, an offence that can lead to a lifetime imprisonment. As a result, many from resistance groups have fled the country.

Today, resistance is difficult to voice. Any political public gathering of more than a few people is considered violation of the junta orders. Any event that opposes the coup is interrupted or forced to cancel. For example, in May 2015 at the one-year anniversary of the last coup, students and citizens intending to join a peaceful, symbolic event, were injured and arrested by police officers. Most recently, the junta forced the cancellation of a talk on human rights at a journalists’ club in Bangkok. Overall, resistance now appears subtly, in events that are not straightforwardly against the coup. Events like eating sandwich or watching the Hunger Games were to show those who think the Coup has no effect on their lives that even normal activity can be disrupted under the dictatorship. The most blatant act might be the Thammasat University’s annual political parade. Thammasat has a leading role in Thai political history, so there was an expectation of students to speak up against the government. Yet, organising is becoming more and more difficult due to surveillance and direct threats to activists. For example, although the junta stated that no charges will be made against the students after the crackdown on the May 2015 gathering bemoaning the coup, few students are now summoned and likely to have charges raised against them. Moreover, people are afraid and discouraged to join or support the resistance as the movement is slandered through mass media and social network. Wrong accusations are that the anti-coup movement is backed by Thaksin Shinawatra, or the movement is another form of the Red Shirts, a movement rejected by the middle and upper class in the country capital Bangkok. A smear campaign has been launched to discredit students and citizens activists, mostly on the Internet as a kind of a witch hunt.

Student activist with a pro democracy academic, who is known to be homosexual, is used with a homophobic slur in Thai that read “faggot gang”, 2014
Student activist with a pro democracy academic, who is known to be homosexual, is used with a homophobic slur in Thai that read “faggot gang”, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly after the 22 May incident, a photo of student activist and police fighting went on the front covers. A Facebook page uses it in comparison with a photo of somebody else, trying to mislead people that students activist is a person who beats a Buddhist monk. May 2015
Shortly after the 22 May incident, a photo of student activist and police fighting went on the front covers. A Facebook page uses it in comparison with a photo of somebody else, trying to mislead people that students activist is a person who beats a Buddhist monk. May 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students and citizens are working hard to defend and counter the smear campaign, yet it seems insufficient. Lies, smearing, and defamation are our major obstacle to grow the resistance among the people. Thai society will tune out what we are trying to say if they are led to believe that political parties and our cause is not purely people’s. That is why, our movement, in my view, must remain faithful to its cause and persist. We want to speak to our sympathizers, but also to those who oppose us.

People in Thailand continue to face absurdities from the Junta daily.

We will continue fighting!

Borjan

Macedonia’s empty democracy

This article originally and integrally appeared on New Eastern Europe on June 2. Author: Borjan Gjuzelov

Back in 1997 Fareed Zakaria in his famous article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” raised legitimate concerns over the development of democracies established after the fall of communism. He claimed that free and fair elections do not necessarily bring the desired outcome of Western-like liberal democracy. On the contrary, he outlined the possibility that multi-party elections in some of the emerging democracies could legitimise a new generation of autocratic and corrupt politicians who do not respect the essential liberal democratic values of a constitutional division of powers (checks and balances), the rule of law, and respect for human rights, but to name a few.

Today, Macedonia is a model example of a hybrid, illiberal or constrained democracy: First elected in 2006, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski with the reformed party VMRO-DPMNE (The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) offered an enthusiastic program for reforms called “Prerodba”, or “Revival”. However, in the following years the new technocratic approach that was supposed to bring economic revival for Macedonia has created a political leviathan where once again, as in socialism, the state was equated with the party: decisions on public employment and subsidies were directly controlled by party officials, oversight bodies and the judiciary were used against political enemies, while the media were put under strict control by the ruling Party.

Despite this, in the last nine years Gruevski and his party have managed to win several elections with ease and to establish a stable base of public support. Apart from some legitimate democratic reasons which have made Gruevski a likeable politician in the Macedonian public discourse, his support was largely dependent on several authoritarian and illiberal elements.

Since the beginning of Gruevski’s time in power, the micromanagement of public institutions and resources and their abuse for party interests has generated widespread clientelism. Citizens have often been pressured to vote and mobilise other voters to vote in favor of the VMRO-DPMNE as a condition to keep their job or to benefit from public services (to which they are entitled by law). Similarly, businesses that were not affiliated with the party have often faced unfair competition: the public procurement market was largely managed by the party, while inspection checks were hostile for any ‘unfriendly firms’.

Moreover, almost the entire media market came under strict control of the government party because their owners, transition oligarchs, were attracted by the government’s public advertising money and the other business privileges offered by the government. For instance, mainstream media did not report on corruption scandals involving the government, but on the contrary have always been very hostile towards the opposition or anyone who is critical of the government, portraying them as national enemies or foreign mercenaries. Critical media and journalists have faced huge amounts of political pressure that often force them into self-censorship.

Finally, symbolic nationalism has flourished with the redefining of Macedonian history and the controversial project Skopje 2014, which has changed the landscape of the Macedonian capital.

In the meantime, in the nine years that VMRO-DMPNE has been developing its illiberal democracy, the opposition has been weak, providing no real alternative or effective plan for how to win back citizens’ support and how to curb Gruevski’s power. Three months ago the opposition revealed a mass wiretapping scandal in which, according to its leader Zoran Zaev, the intelligence service has illegally wire-tapped conversations of more than 20,000 citizens. Among the many wire-tapped calls of citizens were also conversations of some top government officials and ministers. All of this has given credence to the previous allegations of misuse of public resources and institutions for party interests. So far in the 35 rounds of published material there have been serious allegations of what was already described: Gruevski and his closest allies have frequently abused all branches of executive, parliamentary and judicial power.

Although many expected that the revealed scandal would provoke a huge civic reaction and government’s resignation, neither of the two has happened. However, the scandal has had an important impact on the overall political landscape and has mobilised the opposition and civil society against the government.

As a result of numerous protests and mostly under pressure from the international community, three of Gruevski’s key personnel have resigned: his cousin and director of the state intelligence service, Sasho Mijalkov; the Minister of Internal Affairs, Gordana Jankuloska; and the Minister of Transport and Communications, Mile Janakieski.

Moreover, Gruevski and Zaev have started negotiations which are supported by the international community, and many believe that a solution to the crisis is on the horizon. Although no one really knows what is being discussed behind closed doors, it seems that the only solution that can release the institutions from capture by the ruling party and would enable minimum conditions for free and fair early elections is the establishment of a special interim or technical government.

Specifically the lack of information about any legal action against the actors involved shows that despite the obvious allegation for abuse of public office, institutions are unable to act against members of the governing  party. If the judiciary and prosecutors are still controlled by Gruevski and his inner circle, they will remain unable to investigate the allegations. For however long he is in power, institutions will remain part of the problem and will be unable to become a part of the solution.

Consequently, Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE are still holding the strings very tight. They organise counter-protests against the opposition in order to officially defend ‘their democracy’ and the electoral will of the majority. At the same time pro-government media are disseminating aggressive propaganda against the opposition, while the opposition leader Zaev is still facing criminal charges for corruption and orchestrating a coup against the government.

This concentration of power in VMRO-DMPNE makes the real solution to the problem far-reaching. Wire-tapped conversations have additionally raised concerns about the minimum level of integrity of public institutions. For instance, even the electoral support and legitimacy of VMRO-DMPNE is now doubtful because the elections were organised by state institutions whose credibility, after the wire-tapped conversations, now appears questionable. Needless to say, any further elections organised in such conditions would have no credibility.

Therefore, even the term illiberal democracy as defined by Zakaria now seems to be questionable because even free and fair elections organised by the current captured institutions are rightly disputed by the opposition. What we have now in Macedonia is democracy without basic democratic values—good and accountable government, checks and balances, the rule of law, and freedom of speech. These values provide the core meaning and the substance of democracy. Without its substance, such a democracy is an empty democracy: although elected, its legitimacy is questionable and unsustainable.

 

Photo: Radovan Vujovic

photo: Nebojša Gelevski

Macedonia: Anatomy of a crisis

This article originally and integrally appeared on openDemocracy on June 12. Author: Elena B. Stavrevska

From Putin’s Russia, to Erdogan’s Turkey, Orban’s Hungary, Vučić’s Serbia and Gruevski’s Macedonia, new authoritarian regimes have been faking democracy by organising multi-party elections, mimicking democratic institutions and adopting democratic language. Unlike the old authoritarian regimes, these rulers do not need to resort to violence to hold on to power. Rather, they remain in power through the control of information and the manipulation of beliefs, as well as developing neo-patrimonial and neo-prebendal economic systems. A recent study on such regimes identifies four resilience tactics that are usually employed: co-optation, censorship, propaganda, and repression. Importantly, it shows that the regime only uses repression, or violence against the public when mass beliefs cannot be manipulated through the first three tactics. An indication of such a move was witnessed recently in Macedonia.

A mass wiretapping scandal has been unfolding in the country since early February, when the biggest opposition party started broadcasting tapes that point to complete state capture. On May 5, a new set of wiretapped materials provided evidence about a case of fatal police brutality that sparked a mass anti-police brutality protests in 2011. As the anti-police brutality movement was reignited in response to the revelations, thousands gathered to demand resignations and responsibility in front of the Government building. The peaceful protest eventually turned violent, with a number of protesters detained and injured. In addition to using brute force against the protesters, the police also raided a public library harassing students.

The repressive police response backfired, with the protests growing every consecutive day, and spreading throughout the country and the diaspora. They were only interrupted for a few days during the Kumanovo security crisis. This, however, allowed the protesters to crystallise their demands and to unite their actions around a new informal social movement, known as #Protestiram (#IProtest). The protests continued every day until May 17.

The display of citizen dissatisfaction culminated on May 17, when tens of thousands Macedonian citizens demanded resignations from Gruevski and his closest team. Following the protest, which was organised by the coalition called ‘Citizens for Macedonia’, coordinated by the biggest opposition party and a number of NGOs, the coalition set up a protest camp in front of the Government headquarters. On May 18, on the other hand, a large pro-government rally was organised in Skopje, resulting in a government supporters’ camp set up in front of the Parliament building. In reality, both protests were a way for the biggest party leaders, the Prime Minister Gruevski and the opposition leader Zaev, to legitimise themselves and their demands prior to the forthcoming negotiation process.

The negotiations, unfolding mainly in Skopje and Brussels, involve the leaders of the four biggest political parties (two seen as predominantly ethnically Macedonian and the other two as predominantly ethnically Albanian) and is mediated by EU representatives. With the negotiations completely hidden from the public eye and with very little information available to the citizens, the political has been hollowed out of the public domain. Consequently, the protest movement appears to have lost its raison d’être and the camps are on the verge of becoming mere theatrics.

What seems clear is that the negotiations will result in a lose/lose outcome both for the government and the opposition. The opposition has raised the expectations, whereby any outcome that allows Gruevski and his team to keep their offices during the transitional government will be considered unacceptable by those critical of the government. The part of the public that still supports Gruevski, however, would see his leaving as a removing of a legitimately elected country leader.

The EU’s involvement in the process is very important. Beyond any delusional perception of the Union as the Good Samaritan, in this case, it is also EU’s foreign policy actorness that is at stake. The Balkans has always been not only the birthplace of EU’s foreign policy, but also the testing ground for all its instruments in this domain. Many remember the infamous 1991 claim by Jacques Poos, then Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister speaking on behalf of the European Community, that “the hour of Europe has dawn”, shortly before the Yugoslav wars fiasco. The EU foreign policy has come a long way since then, among other things, by contributing to the efforts which prevented an escalation of the 2001 ethnic conflict in Macedonia. In the following years, the EU was a key actor in the process of Macedonian state-building. That said, getting their ‘success story’ in the Balkans back on track to EU membership is paramount for EU’s actorness in foreign matters not being destroyed to ashes. At the same time, wary of opening a can of worms in an unstable neighbourhood and setting precedents, the EU appears mindful of the extent to which it intervenes.

All of this leaves the Union once again giving priority to stabilisation over democratisation, as if the two were not intimately interrelated and could successfully take place in succession. This is an approach of which one can find countless examples in the Balkans. In Macedonia in particular the international community has long been perceiving Gruevski as the ‘stabiliser’, thus turning a blind eye to the democratic backsliding that the country has been experiencing in the last several years. To that end, there are at least three problems with the way the negotiations are carried out at present.

First, there is hardly any transparency in the process. The brief non-informative, often contradictory statements of those involved, including EU representatives, are the only pieces of information the public has. In a society that has been living in a nearly total media blackout for years, the lack of information makes the negotiations and relatedly, the fate of the country, even more distant from the citizens. Needless to say, it also contributes to the perpetuation of the feeling of uncertainty.

Second, there appears to be an assumption that the current authoritarian tendencies, even if never called so explicitly by international representatives, are in a direct opposition to democracy. As if the two constituted a dichotomy and when the current illiberal system collapses, democracy would somehow naturally arise. Like putting a plaster on a wound that has not been cleaned, a deal is being negotiated without much guarantee of its implementation. The failure of the EU-mediated March 2014 agreement, for instance, to bring about any substantial changes or even fully resolve the crisis ought to be a stark reminder of the limits of this approach.

Final and foremost is the problem of representation. The negotiation process postulates the current political crisis as a conflict between political parties rather than a crisis of legitimacy of the institutions. What Macedonia is experiencing is a conflict between the citizenry and the power-holders. There are three important things that the leaders of the political parties perhaps conveniently forget, but the EU representatives must not. First is the fact that the May outburst of public dissatisfaction did not happen in a vacuum and it was not solely a result of the leaked materials. In actuality, the most recent protests come at the heels of months of large protests, starting with the protests of the students at the end of 2014, the contract workers, the media employees, the protests against the Minister of Health following the tragic death of a young girl, the high school students and their parents, etc. The second important fact is that the average election turnout in Macedonia is 57.49%, with a large portion of the country qualified voters deciding not to vote, thereby not being represented by any political party, much less the four biggest. Both of these relate to the third important reality and that is the existence of the genuine grassroots, autonomous, self-organised local agency that the #Protestiram movement is. Up until May 17, the daily protests of #Protestiram had managed to engage a part of the population that is dissatisfied not just with the current government, but with the way politics is done in the country altogether. Believing that the citizens ought to be able to act politically even beyond the political parties, the protesters have demanded accountability to the citizens, not solely to the party members. Through marches and plenums, this local agency, even if unsustainable and with uncertain future, has managed to give a platform for the unrepresented citizens to voice their opinions. Thus, the capacity thereof is something that must be recognised and utilised in the democratisation of the country.

Overall, this is a rare occasion for a ‘restart’ of the system. It is an occasion to rewrite the social contract between the institutions, the government and the citizens. It is an occasion that only occurs after tectonic ruptures, such as wars or massive crises. In Macedonia, this is an opportunity to finally set the foundations of a democratic society and accountable institutions, which will inevitably be a lengthy and laborious process, but it is a process that will help the country move forward at last.

Photo: Nebojša Gelevski